Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL
Uptown Theatre, Chicago, IL

18 December 2011

The Interrupters

Ameena Matthews in a scene from The Interrupters.

Last evening, i had the opportunity to see The Interrupters,  a documentary so powerful that it will make you question what you thought you knew about violence and courage. It is set in Chicago, a city where in the past few years it seems that hardly a night goes by without the news carrying another story of a young person dying in a violent confrontation, or in some cases as the innocent victim of a stray bullet. There are lots of theories about what to do to stop the violence, most of which involve more guns, more police, or even deploying the National Guard. The Interrupters suggests that there is another way. It is the story of a remarkable group of people, the members of the violence interrupters unit of an organization known as Ceasefire. 

Ceasefire was started by Gary Slutkin, M.D.,  an epidemiologist who spent a decade with the World Health Organization treating infectious diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis, and cholera in the developing world. The premise of Ceasefire is based on his observations that violence is America's epidemic, and that it can be treated through methods similar to those used to treat other infectious diseases: primarily by isolating it and preventing its spread. This may seem like lofty-minded, out-of-touch liberalism of the kind that sounds good on paper but would never work in the real world, but what makes it work are the interrupters themselves, tough and fearless people who combine the theoretical base of Ceasefire with their own experience as former gang members and convicted felons and their commitment to saving their communities. When an act of violence occurs and is about to escalate into the endless chain of retaliation and further violence, they step in, quite literally, and try to defuse the situation. They don't succeed every time, but surprisingly often they do. 

The film focuses on three members of the violence interrupters unit: Eddie Bocanegra, Ameena Matthews, and Ricardo "Cobe" Williams. Each has their own story and their own style. I won't go into detailed accounts of their biographies here as they've been written about in press releases and other reviews of the film; but each of them has past experience with gang life and has served jail time. Their pasts make them especially able to reach out to the kids in their neighborhoods; they are respected because they know firsthand what the young people they interact with are going through. There is a gentle sadness about Eddie Bocanegra, born of his remorse and inability to undo the murder that sent him to jail at the age of 17. In the film, he is shown working primarily with two groups: a class of young kids in an art program and a family so overcome by the death of their young son and brother that they spend each day at the cemetery. Seeing this soft-spoken man in action, it is inconceivable that he could have killed someone in cold blood. But he did. And that really is the point: It is the senselessness and contagion of violence that turns what should have been a sweet (and maybe even a little nerdy) kid into a murderer; but that transformation doesn't have to condemn a kid like Eddie to a permanent state of hardened criminality. 

If the term "in your face" did not already exist it would have to be invented just to describe Ameena Matthews. She might be all of five feet tall but she looks like a colossus striding into the middle of a confrontation between rival groups and managing to restore calm. She is equally capable of shouting in the face of a guy twice her size or giving a hug to a child, as the situation warrants. She is shown primarily working with a troubled young woman named Caprishia. If this were a Hollywood drama, all Caprishia's problems would be solved in the end, but life is seldom that simple. Ameena seems possessed of boundless patience, tempered by a healthy dose of tough love. There is no guarantee that her efforts will be rewarded with success, but she understands that, and helps the viewer to understand it as well. What matters is that she (and we) not give up on a girl like Caprishia, or the many others like her. 

Cobe Williams is a warm and genial guy, whose past was scarred by the murder of his father and his own involvement with drugs and conviction for attempted murder. Lest you think that the violence interrupters are adrenalin junkies who thrive on the danger of their work, the filmmakers show the trepidation Cobe feels as he goes to the home of a volatile and very angry, armed man. After listening patiently to his angry threats and complaints, Cobe manages to calm the guy, who goes by the nickname "Flamo," by jokingly inviting him to dinner. It seems preposterous, but somehow that's why it works. It is enough to get him away from his gun and his house, and start him talking about what had happened. I was very fortunate to attend a screening where Cobe Williams was in attendance and conducted a brief Q & A after the film. He talked a bit about Flamo's post-film life: he has stayed out of trouble with the law, is gainfully employed, and is testing the waters as a stand-up comic (Anyone who has seen the film can attest that he definitely has some talent in that direction!). 

One of the most moving episodes in the film involves Cobe's work with seventeen year-old Li'l Mikey Davis who is trying to get his life back on track after serving a few years in jail. Mikey is one of the film's great success stories. His younger brother's hero-worship makes him deeply aware of his own potential for perpetuating the cycle of violence, imprisonment, and possible death; with the help of Cobe, Mikey turns his life around. He owns the mistakes he made as a fourteen year old with a gun, and asks to visit the barbershop he held up so that he can personally apologize to his victims. It is a powerful and painful moment when the owner of the shop lets him know how badly his actions have scarred her family. The scene can be summed up with one word: courage. It is courage that makes this seventeen year-old kid man up, and even greater courage that allows his victim to let him do it. 

As in his previous documentary, Hoop Dreams (1994), director Steve James gives us a compellingly personal and intimate look into the lives of people who are rarely given media attention that goes beyond stereotypes. As the opening credits of The Interrupters are running, we hear a voiceover montage of news stories reporting on death after death of inner city kids. For those of us who don't live in these neighborhoods, that's often all we get: an opaque and incomprehensible litany of violence. The willingness of the people involved to share their stories, often at their most traumatic moments, is a step towards changing all that. Unlike the old model of locking away the victims of infectious diseases in sanatoria, institutions, or ghettos, The Interrupters helps to show that violence, and its toll on the young, is no more inevitable than the contagions of the past. It is an inspiring story in the truest sense, one that leaves you with not only a sense of admiration for the tough, caring, and committed members of the violence interrupters unit, but also with a deeper belief in the possibility of healing.

If you are in Chicago, you can see The Interrupters now through Thursday, 22 December, at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Other scheduled showings can be found on the Kartemquin Films website.

An interview with Ameena Matthews aired on NPR's Fresh Air in August, 2011.

Watch the trailer for The Interrupters here.

16 December 2011

This is the Way the World Will End

There is nothing else in life quite like the feeling of emerging from a movie theater in the middle of an afternoon so completely swept up in the world you had surrendered yourself to for the past couple of hours that you are utterly stunned to discover that life as you knew it had continued in your absence. Not every movie succeeds in doing this, and few so well as Melancholia. I stepped out of the theater after seeing it and, for a brief moment, was amazed to discover people going about their business as if unaware that the world had just ended.

Melancholia, directed by Lars von Trier, is a formally beautiful film divided into three parts: a brief prologue, and two main sections. The prologue foreshadows the film's apocalyptic end: birds fall dead from the sky; a mother, clutching her child, sinks knee-deep in the mud of a rapidly melting earth; a horse falls to the ground in such excruciatingly slow motion that we watch each crease in his neck take shape--first one, then another--as he agonizingly arches his head to the side. The film opens with a close-up of Kirstin Dunst's character seemingly frozen in time, barely revealing any movement to assure the viewer that this is a person and not a portrait; but then in what could be called sudden in no context other than the slowness of this moment, birds begin to fall from the sky. Time seems to stand literally but not entirely still; it is manipulated in a remarkable and unsettling way in these opening shots, as though the elements of the frame are moving at different speeds, ranging from the slow to the glacially slower. It is the paradox of time and perception, the illusion of imperceptible slowness with which a planet hurls itself through the heavens. There is something maddening in all this, something that goes beyond the apocalyptic imagery to reflect the psychic world that the film inhabits: the feeling of stuckness, of being almost but not quite paralyzed, of falling just short of being able to act to save either yourself or your world. Public and private are one in Melancholia, apocalypses are both personal and global, and the one constant is our inability to change the outcome.

The first of the film's two main sections focuses on the wedding of Justine (Kirstin Dunst), the younger of the two sisters around whom the narrative is centered. The reception is an elegant and lavish affair; but despite the meticulous planning of the older, take-charge sister, Clare (Charlotte Gainsbourg), things do not go smoothly. A stretch limo bearing the bride and groom gets hopelessly stuck trying to negotiate the meandering country lane leading to Clare's castle-like home, where the reception is being held. The newlyweds giggle together as the chauffeur tries unsuccessfully to steer the car around an especially sharp turn. The bride and groom each takes a turn behind the wheel, before eventually giving up and taking off on foot for the reception. When they arrive--two hours late but still in high spirits--the bride is immediately chastised by her sister for keeping her guests waiting. The dynamics of the sisters' relationship are clear: Justine is the flighty one, Clare the caretaker; nonetheless, the sisters are clearly attached to each other. The wedding festivities proceed, and the marriage seems like it is off to a very good start. The bride and groom look lovingly at each other, laugh together over the minor catastrophe of the limo, and genuinely seem like a happy couple. Marking the auspicious beginning of their marriage, a new star appears in the sky, as if waiting to be wished on.

There are the usual annoying guests at the reception: a roguish father, played by John Hurt; a marriage-loathing mother, played to bitchy perfection by the incomparable Charlotte Rampling; a passive-aggressive boss who toasts the bride by announcing that she's been given a promotion, and then pressures her to come up there-and-then with a tagline for an ad campaign. Gradually Justine's smile becomes more forced, but it is clear that this is due to much more than the annoyances of her parents and boss or the demands of her sister and brother-in-law that she not ruin the wedding they've put together for her at great expense. The burden of being a bride, of smiling and being happy, slowly overwhelms her until she is so completely incapable of going through the ritualized motions that she stands frozen on a balcony unable to toss her bouquet, and eventually Clare has to grab it off her in exasperation and toss it herself. Justine becomes increasingly elusive, disappearing from the reception (and her new husband's side) for long periods of time. I have a fondness for images of runaway brides (though not for the movie of that name). I've written before of the wonderful moment in Gegen die Wand when Sibel returns home from spending her wedding night with another man. The sight of Justine zipping across the grounds in a golf cart, her veil and train streaming behind her, then squatting to take a pee on the manicured grass of the golf green, surrounded by billows of flouncy white fabric, is a similarly exhilarating moment. We think, briefly, that she will succeed in escaping, even while not understanding yet what it is that she feels the need to escape: convention or the handsome and adoring (if somewhat simple and inarticulate) young husband that she seemed so in love with only a few hours before. Eventually it becomes clear that Justine is at war with herself, battling between depression and a desperate play at normality. Normality doesn't stand a chance, and the groom is gone before the last of the wedding cake is eaten.

The final chapter of the film is set in the aftermath of the disastrous wedding. "Things," as Yeats said, "fall apart." Justine is now husbandless, jobless, and reduced to a near-catatonic state of depression; Clare brings Justine to her home (the site of the ill-fated wedding reception) so she can care for her. The new star that seemed like some lovely omen at the wedding has turned out to be the planet Melancholia, which had heretofore been hidden by the sun, but which now is heading toward the earth. The beautiful blue planet dominates the sky. Clare's husband John (Kiefer Sutherland) is enthralled by this remarkable, once-in-a-lifetime sight and shares this enthusiasm with the couple's young son. Together father and son follow the progress of Melancholia, excitedly anticipating the moment when it will pass most closely to the earth. John is a wealthy and confident man. An amateur astronomer, he owns a powerful telescope, which features prominently throughout the film. It now takes on an almost talismanic role as John hopes to capture and briefly possess this strange phenomenon in the sky. The same impulse is mirrored in the makeshift lasso-like device fashioned by his young son (Ironically, the child's homemade instrument ends up being the more accurate gauge of the planet's proximity). The practical Clare, meanwhile, is filled with dread. Despite her husband's insistence that she stop reading doomsday prophesies on the internet, she cannot shake her fear that the two planets will collide. Hedging his bets, John stockpiles supplies but swears Justine to secrecy, lest Clare take this as a sign of a crack in his confidence about their ultimate survival. It is the interplay of moods--the husband's enthusiasm, the wife's growing fear, and the passivity of the previously rebellious sister--that sets the tone as we await the inevitable.

Ultimately, Melancholia, is a kind of depressive's manifesto, an argument that all those powerful, practical, take-charge sorts like Clare and John are no match for a universe that really cares not at all about us and our little lives. It is Justine, poor damaged Justine, who succeeds, if one can call it that. She has tried to play the game their way, but couldn't; but she has also already played out her own private version of this grand and cataclysmic drama. In surrendering to the forces of her own troubled soul and an indifferent cosmos, she is the one person capable of helping her family face the inconceivable with grace and a small dose of comfort.

Watch the official trailer for Melancholia here.